After the assassination of Osama bin Laden, the US was split about whether to release images of his body. With Moammar Gadhafi we had no such decision to make - dozens of videos and pictures instantly found their way around the world. Once again, we're in a discussion about how these images help, hurt, repulse, enshrine or dehumanize their subject. But this is not a new conversation.
For some reason, I've been thinking a lot about Jesse James this past week. Something in the images of Gadhafi remind me of the pictures that circulated of James after he was killed by Robert Ford in 1882: the angle of repose, the beard, the crowd.
And the way we relive the death of Gadhafi on YouTube every time we watch one of those videos -- that reminds me of how Ford relived his assassination of James night after night on stage.
The connection is tangential at best -- there's much more difference than not between the life these two men led and the death they suffered. But still, let's take the chance to learn a bit about another time when images of a famous dead criminal were widely circulated. I reached out to Richard Slotkin, professor emeritus of English at Wesleyan University and author of, among many other fantastic works, Gunfighter Nation: Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America. I also contacted T.J. Stiles, Pulitzer-Prize winning biographer and author of Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War. Both shared their thoughts by email.
How true is the James post-death myth? Was his body really put on display and on tour? Was that controversial or common practice?
Richard Slotkin: His body was displayed and photographed, but not put on tour. The more notorious images were of the Dalton Gang dead after their 1892 Coffeyville Raid.
T.J. Stiles: That's right, but in a creepy twist, the death photo was used as the basis for an engraving that appeared on the cover of, I forget, the National Police Gazette, or some other magazine. In it, Jesse James had his eyes open, looking at the viewer, rather like he had come back to life.
Displaying a body was common pratice by the time Jesse James was killed in 1882. I'm not sure when it started, but photography of dead villains proliferated during the Civil War. When one of Jesse James's leaders during the war, Confederate guerrilla William "Bloody Bill" Anderson, was killed in October 1864, his body (clad in a home-embroidered "guerrilla shirt") was propped up in a chair, guns placed in his hands, for pictures.
I hesitate to pontificate on this. People have always liked pictures. In the Civil War era, people separated from each other often begged each other for their photographs in letters. For many adults in the 1860s, photography had come about in their lifetimes, and may have been somewhat exciting and new—though I'd defer to other historians on that last point. But I would say that the intensity of violence in the Civil War, especially in Missouri, eroded social norms and definitely created an appetite for vengeance, which photographs of dead killers satisfied. Such pictures may or may not have predated the war, but they prolierated during and after the war.
Was Robert Ford forced to recreate the death on stage? How'd he feel about that? [[NOTE: There's a fantastic scene in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford - a fantastic movie overall - about this.]]
Richard Slotkin: He did, but I don't know how he felt about it.
T.J. Stiles: Bob Ford was certainly not forced to re-enact the crime. It was the only thing he did "right" in his life, his only claim to fame -- and he worked it as hard as he could.
Richard Slotkin: It did make money for him. My guess is he didn't mind it much. These guys were sociopaths.
T.J. Stiles: The stage was the nineteenth century's radio, television, cinema, and Internet. There were stage adaptations of everything—novels, historical events, etc.—and many writers made more money from lectures than writing. Then again, just about anything pays better than writing.
What's the attraction? Death proof? Freak show? A desire to pay homage to James or to villify Ford?
T.J. Stiles: Proof of Jesse James's death was certainly important to the public. Many people wrote privately that they couldn't believe it at first. He'd been reported dead before, and always escaped the worst situations, including the Northfield disaster and the Pinkerton raid on his mother's farm. The typical post-Civil War outlaw had a career of only a few years; James had lived outside the law since 1869, when he was first publicly identified as a criminal.
Richard Slotkin: As for Ford's performances, I'd guess pure sensationalism -- more freak show than occasion to vilify Ford.
Is there a media angle to this practice? This was obviously pre-TV, pre-YouTube - did that lead to a greater desire to see the body and "witness" the killing?
T.J. Stiles: Definitely there is a media angle. There seems to be something inherent in human beings that attracts us to visual imagery, and to greater verisimilitude. The technical improvements of reproducing and mass-producing imagery spread at the same time as the print medium went national, through nationally distributed magazines in particular. First engravings and then photographs filled the pages of these pubications. This also happened at the time of the Civil War, when the nation was enduring the most horrific conflict of our entire history. Again, I don't want to pronounce definitively on the history of photography, but it's notable that the war seemed to promote a kind of genre of death portraiture. We've all seen the photos of bodies splayed on battlefields, as well as the dead bandits. These were pictures specifically taken for a mass audience, intended to bring us face to face with death. But not all death photos were the same.
What's notable about photos of Bloody Bill Anderson, Bill Stiles, Jesse James, or the Dalton Gang, is that they, like the pictures of Gadhafi, were taken as a form of celebration, as a metaphorical desecration of the corpse of the villain. As Drew Gilpin Faust wrote in This Republic of Suffering, nineteenth-century Americans believed in the "good death," at home in bed surrounded by family, after affirming one's faith in Jesus. The photo of a shirtless, bullet-ridden, glassy-eyed corpse affirmed that a notorious killer emphatically did not have a good death. I imagine there is much the same thinking going in Libya right now, just as it was in Iraq when Saddam Hussein was filmed while being hung -- but I could hardly know that for certain.
I would not imagine that the density of our media environment changes the purpose of celebratory imagery of death. Revenge is said to be one of the most satisfying emotions. It's also said that a picture is worth a lot of words, at least when it comes to confirmation that the deed was done.
So, what do you make of the controversy over images of other notorious deaths - the Sadaam Hussein cell phone video; bin Laden photos; the Gadhafi clips and photos? We obviously live in a more media-saturated environment.
Richard Slotkin: I think we're more queasy about killing and images of killing. Until 1920 lynch mobs used to bring the women and kids to watch them torture and kill their victims. Spectators flocked to hangings. We're not less murderous than our ancestors -- statistics suggest we're more murderous -- but we like our killing clean and distant, unmanned drones rather than Robert Ford or a lynch mob (which is what killed Gadhafi). We only accept graphic snuff-images when it's in a horror film, and then we love it. To me it's pure hypocrisy -- the Republicans cheering Governor Perry for executing 284 people. We like the death penalty but don't want to pull the switch or even watch it done.